A Second-Person Perspective on the Execution of St. Thomas More

By: Natalie J. Plumb

Your palms are sweaty, but you’re calm. You know the answer to this question. You’ve practiced it many times before, in prayer. God’s will be done.

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The King of England is staring at you. He has just ordered you to take an oath. You know exactly what to say, but you hesitate to say it. You know the consequences.

You know that you’ll be imprisoned for treason for not acknowledging King Henry XIII as head of the Church of England, and for refusing to acknowledge his annulment from Catherine.

You’ve already resigned, but this means completely renouncing your career. You will have to say goodbye to your family. You will die…

But you stand firm.

To be content to be solitary.
Not to long for worldly company
but utterly to cast off the world
and rid my mind the business thereof. 
[1]

A few weeks pass. The cell walls surrounding you feign imprisonment, but you feel completely free. God is ever-present. You’re writing a letter now to your family. You just sealed a letter to John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester. You both know he has similar trials to face.

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During these remaining months of your life, trapped like a miscreant in the Tower of London, you write stories, treatises and prayers; you write for others and for yourself. You write until they take away your parchment and your pen. You pray. You laugh with your daughter when she visits. You practice other penitential exercises to keep yourself grounded in your imminent death, and the glory to come in heaven.

Gladly to bear my purgatory here,
To be joyful of tribulations,
To walk the narrow way the leadeth to life.
To bear the cross with Christ,
To have the last thing–death–in remembrance,
To have ever afore mine eye my death, that is ever at hand;
To make death no stranger to me;
To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell;
To pray for pardon before the Judge come.

You were betrayed, but you knew this moment would come. And you’re ready. You are God’s servant first.

Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all–to set the loss at nought
for the winning of Christ.
To think my most enemies my best friends,
For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good
with their love and favor as they did him with their
malice and hatred.

I’m sure you figured it out using context clues, and tomorrow’s Feast, but the “you” in this story is St. Thomas More, Renaissance Man and equal parts lawyer, father, Catholic, politician and civil servant.

Unfortunately, the stories of the saints sometimes cause our eyes to glaze over, at least the manner in which they are traditionally told. The stories of martyrs, children of God who followed Christ in a way worthy of imitation, should be relatable and tangible. The stories we hear so often fall short of the attention they deserve.

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When I visited the St. Thomas More exhibit at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., I encountered an authentic person, someone real. After two hours of taking in the captivating exhibit on its closing date, March 31, 2017, I understood a saint in a way I never had before. St. Thomas More’s trials, prayers, values and love for others and the Church unraveled before me in a story full of immense suffering and faith. Experiencing his life was overwhelming.

A pioneer of religious freedom, he died for rights that we take for granted. I think we forget that, similar to how we forget Christ in His Passion.

A large number of us, found in persecution and in trials similar to that of St. Thomas More, would not stand firm. I waver to think what I would have done in his shoes.

Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years’ time. —G.K. Chesterton, 1929

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Let’s fast-forward to 2017, to when religious liberty is at stake and cases like the Little Sisters of the Poor make us uncomfortable.

But our brothers and sisters abroad are being killed. At times like these, no matter what freedoms are at risk, we cannot remain silent. Standing for religious freedom might make us cringe, test our comfort zones, or even precipitate losing a few friends. May we remember that St. Thomas More fought for our cause, and it cost him his family, his career, his reputation at the time, and eventually his life.

May we be encouraged to stand with him and the others saints and martyrs who go before us. May our actions and our lives resonate with St. Thomas More’s final words before his beheading:

I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.

On Thursday, June 22, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge invites you to a special Fortnight for Freedom Opening Mass for our Diocese at 7 p.m. in the Cathedral of St. Thomas More. It will be followed by a reception in Burke Hall. All are invited.

Visit our website to learn more about Fortnight for Freedom 2017 events throughout our Diocese.


[1] Prayer of St. Thomas More, Saint Thomas More, https://tmp-m.org/spirituality-2/prayer-of-st-thomas-more

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Prayer of St. Thomas More (Photo Courtesy Natalie J. Plumb)

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The writings of St. Thomas More (Photo Courtesy Natalie J. Plumb)

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A brief timeline highlighting important religious freedom events during St. Thomas More’s life (Photo Courtesy Natalie J. Plumb)


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